Steve Rogers was busy doing his nails when Galen Cisco, the Montreal pitching coach, stopped by Rogers' locker to place the game ball in his shoe. Cisco poked Rogers congenially in the shoulder and screwed his features up into a good-luck look. Rogers, amused, smiled a thank you in return. He extracted the ball from his shoe, hefted it thoughtfully, then set it aside and resumed work on his fingernails. "It's a tradition," he said, referring to Cisco's dumb show, not the manicure. " Casey Stengel used to do that—give the pitcher the ball before a game to let him know he was starting that day—and Galen learned it from Casey when he was with the Mets. Pitchers know in advance when they're working now, so it's just a symbolic gesture."
Rogers, whose mother, Connie, is a distant relation of Connie Mack's, has a certain reverence for tradition, but he just as often flies in the face of it, especially in the company of the school-of-hard-knocks troglodytes he so deplores. And the nail polish? Did Stengel have his pitchers paint their nails before games? "My nails have a tendency to split," Rogers explained, "particularly when I'm throwing the slider, so I use a nail-hardening solution. Looks silly, I know, but it works."
That little clubhouse vignette demonstrates as clearly as anything the paradoxical nature of a man considered by many experts to be the best righthanded pitcher in the National League. His 17-7 record and league-leading 2.44 ERA at the end of last week make him a leading candidate for the league's Cy Young Award. "Cy," in fact, has been Rogers' nickname since his rookie season, though he disavowed it at this year's All-Star Game, in which he was the winning pitcher, in deference to the two previous winners who adorned the National League clubhouse. Rogers accepts his game's hoary ways, but he insists on going his own way. Although he now lives in Tulsa, he's from Missouri, so he has to be shown.
Rogers is as amiable as the corner druggist in his old hometown of Springfield, and yet he has a reputation—pretty much deserved—for rebelling against authority. "I've created more problems in my life than I've solved," he says. He throws, with consummate skill, all the standard pitches—fastball, curve, slider, change—but he does so with a motion so unorthodox that it offends the sensibilities of pitching purists. "He throws across his body and off a stiff leg," says his teammate, reliever Woody Fryman. "You don't teach that anywhere." Rogers is cool and collected on the mound, but you'd never know that from watching him. Indeed, Barrymore as the Dane couldn't have conveyed greater anguish. Rogers contemplating the baseball suggested, for at least one Montreal sports-writer, "Hamlet with Yorick's head." Opponents find Rogers' suffering distracting. "He's great," says the Reds' Johnny Bench, "if you don't have to watch him."
Rogers' biggest critic, though, is himself. Scott Sanderson, his fellow Montreal pitcher, says, "He gets down on himself a lot because of how analytical he is. He's trying to reach perfection in a game where that's impossible. If he were a hot dog, he'd be laughing when he strikes out somebody. But with Steve, you only see the negative emotions. Even after a great game, you don't see him all smiles, because he's seen things he hasn't been pleased with. He's very hard on himself."
The suffering is real. Off the mound, Rogers is relaxed, philosophical even in the face of disaster. When his condominium in Montreal was gutted by fire last January, confining him, his wife, Barbara, and sons, Jason, 8, and Geoff, 6, to a small apartment during the rebuilding, Rogers said it was probably all for the best because now, surely, improvements would be made in the condo, particularly in the fireproofing. He understands that not all of his pitches can be strikes. It's just that it hurts so much when they're not.
In a sense, Rogers' only opponent on the diamond is himself. "The large majority of us pitch out of a fear of failure," he says. "Early in my career, I created a dislike for the hitter. But if you have to do that, it's more a sign of insecurity than anything else. Now I feel that if I make my pitch, I'm going to get-the hitter out, no matter who's in the box. It's not an emotional confrontation. If my concentration is good, I'll avoid the emotional peaks and valleys. Thinking negative thoughts about the hitter just interferes with my concentration. I try to eliminate all that stuff and worry only about myself."
Rogers was born in Jefferson City, Mo. and raised in Springfield, in the southwest part of the state. His father, Dr. W.L. Douglas (Doug) Rogers, is a dentist there, and Steve, his two younger brothers and three sisters grew up on "the rich kids' side of town" in a handsome five-bedroom house. "I remember it all so vividly," he says. "On Saturdays we'd get up, grab a glove and choose up sides on the playground. We'd eat lunch as fast as we could, then go back and play until dark. I thought of that old park as being bigger than Yellowstone." At the University of Tulsa, Rogers earned a degree in petroleum engineering, a demanding discipline combining mathematics and chemistry, and had a 31-5 record on a baseball team that twice went to the College World Series. Montreal selected him in the first round of the secondary draft in June of 1971. Baseball won out easily over engineering.
The Expos called him up from the minors in July of 1973, and he won 10 games and lost five, completed seven of 17 starts, pitched three shutouts and finished with an ERA of 1.54. "It was the most unbelievable thing I'd ever seen," says Expos Manager Jim Fanning, then Montreal's general manager. "He was a good pitcher from the very minute he got to this club." In his first full season, Rogers was 15-22 for a fourth-place team, getting a decision in all but one of his starts. He also suffered from tendinitis from the second month on, the first of a succession of ailments that would hamper him for the next five seasons. In 1976 he broke a bone in his right hand, and in '78 he developed bone chips in his pitching elbow that required surgery.
In the meantime, Rogers clashed alternately with Manager Dick Williams and General Manager Charlie Fox, two hard-knocks grads and hidebound authoritarians. It didn't help that Rogers was—and still is—the Expos' player representative. On one occasion in July of 1978, the fiery Fox took a swing at Rogers after the player rep suggested that Fox quit disturbing the players in their clubhouse. Williams and Rogers sniped at each other—in person and in print—for the better part of three seasons. By the time Williams was fired last September, the two were scarcely speaking. Rogers felt that Williams overworked him in '79, when Rogers was recovering from surgery, and at the same time complained about his relative ineffectiveness. He has no love for Williams to this day, but he also says, "When you're immature, you always feel put upon. In the end result, you have to make for yourself whatever you get. You can't blame things on someone else."